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  • Christina Theodorakis-Itagaki

Putting Keigo (Polite Japanese Speech) into Perspective

If you're learning Japanese and find it unnecessarily difficult, it's not just you. I was raised bilingual in English and Greek, and also did very well in my German classes throughout middle school and high school, which makes sense — European languages have a lot in common, linguistically and culturally. For starters, European countries are traditionally majority Christian, so they often share some expressions, such as "Oh my god."

The reason why Japanese is such a difficult language for Western people to learn is because Japan has its roots in Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shintoism (but keep in mind that this is also true for many other Asian countries with ties to Confucianism and Buddhism, such as Korea and China) and keigo (敬語) — literally "polite speech" — is analogous to the English in England from the days of yore.

English speakers, imagine if it were only acceptable and polite to use Shakespearean English in formal settings — such as in business, with people you don't know well, extended family, and people you respect, to name a few — but "everyday" Modern English only in settings where you're speaking to someone with which you have a close relationship (such as close family and friends). You would literally have to be fluent in two forms of English.

To top it off, keigo is the broad name for all forms of polite speech of Japanese: there are actually three categories of polite speech, within which, there are even more levels of formal, polite speech. There is polite speech for lowering yourself below someone else and thus raising that someone above you (kenjō-go [謙譲語], literally "modest speech"), raising someone else above you (sonkei-go [尊敬語], literally "respectful speech"), and showing respect (teinei-go [丁寧語], literally "kind and polite speech"). Now, when you're speaking to close family and friends, you can use tamego or tameguchi, or casual speech, but even at the lowest, most basic level of keigo, teineigo, the level of formality is still equivalent to archaic English from the Elizabethan era. All of these polite forms of Japanese are not only still used today, but it's still as offensive to use the wrong polite speech as it was hundreds of years ago, and there have been press conferences in Japan where public figures have had to apologize for using the wrong polite words for the situation.

Could you keep track of all that?

This ties into business because one of the reasons why Japan fails at communicating in English is because they try to directly translate their keigo into "polite English" or "business English," but what a shocking number of Japanese people don't understand — and aren't taught — is that they don't exist.

From our experience living and working in Japan, Japanese people are also incorrectly taught that some English words or expressions are more polite than others. In fact, one of my Japanese coworkers had her mind blown when my expat coworker and I explained to her that "May I...?" is not any more polite than "Could I...?" or "Can I...?" (ignoring the fact that, semantically, "May I...?" just makes more sense in English, but everyone knows what you're trying to ask if you use "Can I...?" or "Could I...?"). Japanese people focus so much on words that express politeness rather than their tone of voice while speaking in English, just as they do in Japanese, that they end up not sounding very polite or friendly at all. For instance, many Japanese people think that "Thank you very much" and "Thank you so much" are polite no matter when you use them and have no idea how important the tone of voice is to their meaning (if you don't believe me, watch episode 3 of "Love Is Blind Japan" on Netflix).

The point of this blog wasn't to knock on Japan, but to shine a light on how Japanese people perceive expressing politeness and why your Japanese employees, clients, or business partners may be victims of the poor English education in Japanese. If you need any advice or information on how to best communicate with Japanese people, contact us at

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